Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Red Tails"--George Lucas on the Tuskegee Airmen

When I heard George Lucas was making a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, my first thought was “I hope it’s better than the Star Wars prequels, because the Tuskegee Airmen deserve better.”  Unfortunately, “Red Tails” was not better than the prequels—in fact, it may have been worse.  Lucas wanted to produce an old-fashioned war film, with one of his colleagues saying black soldiers had never received the “John Wayne treatment.” (NYT, January 22, 2012)  “Red Tails” accomplishes that goal, but adds a heavy dose of corny dialogue and dull characters.  “Glory” (1989), which gave long-overdue attention to African-American military service in the Civil War, showed you could make a heroic war movie that is also sophisticated.  “Red Tails” falls well short in this regard.

The film depicts the true story of black pilots in the Army Air Force during World War II (the Air Force did not become an independent service until 1947).  Overcoming opposition from within the military as well as segregationist politicians, the Tuskegee Airmen fought to serve their country.  Though not portrayed in the film, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pushed hard for them to have the opportunity, bringing media attention to their cause.  Once they received a chance, the airmen played a central role in the air war in Europe during the last two years of the conflict.  The 332nd Fighter Group, one of two squadrons which composed the airmen, had a “record [that] was unmatched by any single escort group,” wrote Gail Buckley in her history of blacks in the military, adding that “in two hundred missions they never lost a single bomber” (American Patriots, 277). Though “Red Tail’s” approach is wooden, the movie gives well-earned credit to the pilots, showing them as traditional military heroes.

The two main black flyers, however, are portrayed in cookie-cutter fashion; one is cautious and careful while another, Joe Little, is hot headed and adventurous. Little (whose name may be a reference to Malcolm Little, who became Malcolm X) gets into a bar fight with white soldiers at an officer’s club in Italy after he is called the n-word.  This scene reflects the fact that conflicts between black and white soldiers were common during the war, deeply worrying military leaders. 

Black airmen noted that they faced little prejudice from Italians.  Indeed, Little has a relationship with a local woman, as some black soldiers did.  As in World War I, stories about these interracial relationships deeply concerned many in the South, where Jim Crow had always centered on a fear of sex between black men and white women.

Race often came to forefront during the Second World War as some historians see the conflict as the start of the modern civil rights movement.  Even before the war started, many in the government were concerned about black morale.  A. Philip Randolph, a key black union leader, threatened to lead a March on Washington in 1941 if the Roosevelt Administration did not take action to prevent discrimination in defense employment.  When Randolph wouldn’t budge, FDR issued Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).  Though the FEPC would be underfunded and largely ineffective, it represented the first federal measure to protect the political rights of African Americans since Reconstruction.  While Randolph called off the march, it provided the inspiration for the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech

Once the war began, the fight for democracy against racist regimes in Germany and Japan exposed the contradiction between American rhetoric and American practice.  Noting that African-American soldiers were fighting for freedom abroad when they didn’t have equal rights at home, black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier promoted the “Double V” campaign of defeating both Jim Crow and the Axis powers.   White liberals began to focus on the need to address the problem of segregation, albeit gradually. 

500,000 blacks served in the American military during the war (American Patriots, 261).  The Tuskegee Airmen, like all African-American soldiers, faced Jim Crow conditions while off base during their training in the South.  While the pilots and others saw combat in segregated units, traditional stereotypes about the weak capabilities of black soldiers (briefly referenced in “Red Tails”) relegated most to supporting roles.  One notable exception to both rules came during the Battle of the Bulge in 1945, when manpower shortages forced the integration of a few infantry units.

In interviews publicizing the movie, Lucas has mentioned the possibility of making another film that dramatizes the reaction to the airmen when they return home.  While most black soldiers came back to the United States in 1945 hoping to find jobs and resume their lives, some sought to challenge the racial caste system. A young Mississippian named Medgar Evers tried to vote in the Democratic primary in his home state in 1946, only to be met with violence. He later became head of the NAACP in Mississippi.  Jackie Robinson, who served in the Army during World War II, integrated major league baseball when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  At the same time, many in the South wanted to ensure that returning black soldiers did not take the democratic rhetoric of the war too seriously.  Lynchings, which had declined significantly over the previous generation, increased dramatically in 1946-47 and several veterans were among the victims, spurring President Harry Truman to take a stronger stance on civil rights. 

The heroic service of the Tuskegee Airmen as well as other black soldiers paved the way for President Truman’s order integrating the military in 1948.  Many military leaders, including five-star generals such as Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, opposed integration, with Bradley declaring that the military was not a venue for social engineering.  It is remarkable to see the similarities between this thinking and contemporary arguments against allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

Lucas said that he wanted to make a heroic film for black teenagers because African Americans have never received that kind of portrayal in a World War II film.  Indeed, dating back to the movies made during the war, World War II films have rarely highlighted black participation.  Even in recent movies like “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “Thin Red Line”1998), and “Flags of our Fathers” (2006), African Americans barely appear.  Despite disdain from critics, “Red Tails” is getting a strong response from audiences, doubling the studios’ expectation with its opening weekend gross.  Perhaps it will simply be a crowd-pleaser that calls attention to an important and relatively unknown part of American history.  Many movies don’t even accomplish that much, though I would recommend the HBO movie “Tuskegee Airmen” (1995) for a more sophisticated look at the subject.

Gail Buckley, American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm (New York, 2001)

New York Times Magazine, January 22, 2012

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